On New Year diets

It is the New Year and time for resolutions, chief among them the annual promise to lose weight and get in shape. Having invested my share of brain cells to the topic of diet, and finding myself a bit of an amateur evangelist for reforming one’s health following my physical breakdown in 2006 following my bike vs. automobile incident, I thought I’d succinctly offer some unsolicited advice to those of you thinking about turning over a new leaf. My credentials? I went from a whopping, life-threatening 280 pounds in August 2010 to 228 in February 2012 by going on a disciplined regimen of paleo diet on Zone block calculated portions with vigorous Crossfit training. This is not a “diet” but a life style change.

1. Log:  You can’t manage what you don’t measure  so start a food log. Be religious about logging everything that enters your stomach. I use Livestrong’s “MyPlate” — it has a great database for calculating the caloric content of nearly every food imaginable.

2. Weigh:  Treat food like medicine — a drug you administer to yourself five times a day. You need to know your “dosage” so weigh your portions. After a while you’ll learn to eyeball it. Get a decent digital food scale.

3. Study:  nutritional theory is being turned on its head. The old FDA “Food Pyramid” is under attack and it is very likely that your doctor doesn’t know what he or she is talking about any more. Ignore the diet books — you need to stop thinking in terms of “diets” as in plans or gimmicks.  Get off the yoyo cycle of South Beach, Atkins, etc. and instead aim for a sustainable approach to eating for the rest of your life.

  • Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes. This is the most important book to come along in years.
  • It Starts With Food, Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. These authors of the Whole30 challenge offer a good intro to kicking off a “paleo” regimen.
  • Enter the Zone, Barry Sears. The Zone was one of the big “low-carb” diets of the last decade. It’s formula of apportioning food into “blocks” of protein, carbs and fats calculated againt your lean body mass is the best method for determining how much you should eat. Combine it with the paleo principles of whole foods omitting dairy, sugar, grains, and legumes and you wind up with what the Crossfit community considers the A-1 best diet model for the rest of your life.
  • Robb Wolf: one of the “deans” of the paleo movement.
  • YouTube series of Crossfit and the Zone/Paleo Combination. This is very useful.

4. Understand: To do that you need to understand the science behind nutrition and accept certain new emerging truths:

  • Eating fat doesn’t make you fat
  • Grains are not good for you
  • Hormonal response to food dictates where that food’s energy is stored.  Timing of meals is important.
  • Eating clean doesn’t mean eating organic, it means eating “whole” unprocessed food whenever possible
  • Finally — this is all quantifiable and comes down to the simple truth of all diets — to lose weight you need to expend more calories than you consume.

5.  Exercise:  figure out something that will burn a few hundred calories and keep you interested. If you’re really off track, just get into a routine of walking and work up to something more aerobic. Just get moving. Crossfit is not the answer for most people. It’s expensive, it’s a commitment, but it is effective for former athletes and type-A personalities. Just make daily movement and creating a calorie deficit as much a plan as the menus you build.

6. Commit:  Dive into the Whole30 January challenge. Purge your refrigerator, buy a scale, find a farmer’s market and load up on the essentials. Detox yourself for a week, then settle into a routine that can stay with you forever. There’s no weirdness — no cleansing, no grapefruits, bacon and steak — just a logical routine that once learned will help shape your most important contribution you can make to your health: your diet.

Colonial Theraflu: Hot Buttered Rum

Last summer I dusted off my bartender’s chops and made a deep dive into the artisinal cocktail craze with a specific focus on Tiki drinks and Italian apertos and vegetals. This fall my focus is on stuff the American colonists drank.

I majored in American History, and two of the best two courses were David Brion Davis‘ course on Jacksonian Democracy and Michael Coe’s seminar on colonial archaeology. Both featured a focus on the important place alcohol had in early America and taken together I got a great introduction into American’s domestic life between 1600 and 1850. Everyone knows the old timers were big drinkers.  Really big drinkers. I mean these people drank alcohol the way modern fat people drink Fanta. The per capita consumption was huge — primarily beer and rum, the latter being the basis of the three-legged Salem slave trade that had New England merchants carrying slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and then molasses from the islands to distilleries around Boston.

“Colonists … enjoyed alcoholic beverages with such names as Rattle-Skull, Stonewall, Bogus, Blackstrap, Bombo, Mimbo, Whistle Belly, Syllabub, Sling, Toddy, and Flip. If they indulged too much, then they had dozens of words to describe drunkenness. Benjamin Franklin collected more than 200 such terms, including addled, afflicted, biggy, boozy, busky, buzzey, cherubimical, cracked, and “halfway to Concord.” Drinking in America: Colonial Williamsburg.

The origins of the first “cocktail” is attributed to antebellum New Orleans, and has something to do with French bitters, absinthe and American rye whiskey, resulting in the classic Sazerac. In the publick houses and taverns of New England, the drinks were mainly rum based and often served hot. Now they are being revived and the result is kind of interesting, basically like drinking stuff that tastes like liquified pumpkin pie with a kick.

In September, shortly before the end of the yachting season, I was mooring the boat after the sunset when the person helping me forgot to tie off the painter (nautical term for “rope attached to the bow of a small boat for purposes of securing it) to the motorboat (you know who you are Marta).  As I furled the sail I looked up to see the motorboat drifting away towards North Bay. I stripped off my shirt, flexed my muscled torso for the benefit of the ladies, and plunged into the autumnal seas with a gonad-shrinking gasp. The boat was returned, all was well, but I “caught a chill” — code for “I need a drink”  — and at the restaurant that evening, while waiting at the bar for a table, I saw that the drink special that had been chalked on the blackboard was a Hot Buttered Rum.

I was cold.

The drink was hot.

I had become cold while sailing.

Sailors drink rum.

I was tempted but ….

… Bad memories of hot buttered rum gave me pause. I had made them for customers at the Balboa Cafe in San Francisco in the early 80s.  Like a grand total of two of them. The pre-made “mix” was a brown paste that came in a plastic cottage cheese kind of container. It was disgusting stuff. A dollop was spooned into an irish coffee glass, hot water was added to a shot of dark rum, everything got a quick muddle to break it up and melt it and the steaming mess was shoved in the direction of the weirdo who ordered it. No one ordered hot buttered rum. Ever. So the brown paste was of some dubious vintage and I never took a test sip to confirm that it was horrible. It smelled like the basket of dried flowers my mother put on the back of the toilet tank to cover up bad odors.  This is odd because the Balboa was, I argue, the first bar in America to kick off the artisinal cocktail movement – no mixes were uses, all juices were carefully squeezed as needed, and bartenders like me were expected not only to know complex classics, but expected to make them perfectly. The fact we phoned in hot buttered rum was lost on me until this fall when the bartender at Mashpee’s Trevi showed me how it’s supposed to be done.

This was the same bar that turned me onto the evil French 75 earlier in the summer, so with some trust in my heart I ordered one. The bartender built it from scratch. A tablespoon of good butter, a couple tablespoons of dark brown sugar, some fresh grated nutmeg, ground cloves, ground cinnamon, a shot of really dark Kraken rum, then a trip to the steam nozzle on the espresso machine to get it boiling. He garnished it with a slice of lemon and a cinnamon stick.

It was awesome. It was the perfect drink. I felt like I was wearing shoes with pewter buckles, white panty hose, a big white floppy bow tie and a stove pipe Pilgrim hat. I was ready to join Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin and throw frozen dog poop snowballs at the Red Coats in front of the old Statehouse, toss some tea into the harbor, and plot some Manifest Destiny.  I shared it. One person said, “It’s Theraflu for Pilgrims.” That seemed appropriate, especially since the prior Theraflu analogy has been applied to the complimentary lemoncello that restaurants in Florence like to pour at the end of every meal but missed the fact that Theraflu is generally served in a mug of hot water.

It was so good I had to recreate it. I spent some time online searching out recipes. I made a batch and thought it pretty good (but not as good as the one at Trevi). I was biased because I made it, but no one else hanging around my kitchen was exactly clamoring for one, so I guess it falls into the category of acquired taste or total failure.

The hipster artisanal cocktail subculture has seized on reviving the classics from the golden age of cocktails, and with all obsessive (and bloggable) fads, that subculture is spawning branches into Tiki cocktails (Mai Tais, Fog Cutters, Zombies, etc.), vegetals (homemade nocino, Cynar, Aperol, etc.), boutique distilled gin, etc. etc. etc. etc.  The colonial branch in the mixology fad is focused on punches, flips, Bishops, shandy’s, cobblers, mulled ciders, wines,  etc..  This list of new bars from the New York Times caught my eye, primarily because of the news that a new place is opening on Broad Street, the Dead Rabbit:

DEAD RABBIT Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, veterans of the Merchant Hotel bar in Belfast, and Danny McDonald, who owns the Manhattan bars Puck Fair and Swift, collaborate on this historically minded three-story cocktail bar just around the corner from Fraunces Tavern in the financial district. The ambitious spot (named after a notorious 19th-century street gang) intends to combine two of the area’s bygone drinking destinations: the sort of taproom patronized by immigrants and a sporting man’s cocktail lounge. Expect punch, bishops, flips, cups and cobblers, and food. (Late November): 30 Water Street (Broad Street).”

And yes, hot pokers were used to heat up these things, but having converted the fireplace into a gas insert, I am not planning on brandishing any red-hot pokers around my glassware any time soon. This guy made his own, which I think is awesome:

The full story is at Cocktalians.com


A good clam cooked well

The more I cook the more I realize I have never gone wrong with Marcella Hazan‘s cookbooks, especially my well worn and falling apart copy of  Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. On Saturday night I found myself with a lot of quahogs and about four dozen beautiful littlenecks I dug with my son on the falling tide. Littlenecks generally get opened and eaten raw on the half-shell, but I wanted a white clam sauce and some pasta so I turned to Marcella’s bible of Italian and made her version of the classic spaghettini con vongole.

The clams came from a very special spot that I won’t disclose because it’s my go-to spot for littlenecks. Quahogs are graded by size. and the most delicate and tasty are the small ones, about the size of a silver dollar, called littlenecks. A step bigger, the right size for clams casino, are cherrystones, and above them come a sort of neither here nor there middle ground that really doesn’t have a name — save perhaps “clams” — and at the high end, for stuffed quahogs or making chowder are the eponymous “chowder” clams about as big as a big man’s fist.

The smallest clams have to  be run through a steel gauge to make sure they are legal. The basket on my Ribb rake is also allegedly spaced correctly to let juveniles drop through, but I use the gauge just to be sure. Any babies get tossed into deeper water where the gulls can’t forage them and they can grow up to become chowders.

The spot is good because it is a small river — a stream really — that has a lot of water velocity with the rising and falling tide and that means the clams are fresher than the ones in stagnant water. They live in sand, not black mud, and are easy to clean and usually deliver a chewing experience without sand or grit. I also have a respect for funky clams, the kinds that give you 36 hours on the toilet or a permanent case of hepatitis. Let’s just say I don’t eat August littlenecks.

We took all we needed in 10 minutes, coming up a few times with rakes filled with six, seven littlenecks. These are not littlenecks in the picture below, but cherrystones.

We wore waders because it is April after all and waders made a day on the water a lot more enjoyable — no filling of boots, no shivering in the windchill of the speeding motorboat, the air temperature on the water in the early spring feels at least ten degrees colder than it does on land, in the yard, out of the wind. We took our littlenecks, measured them, then set off for another spot to look for bigger clams for an Easter Clams Casino and some chowder base to freeze up for the summer when there is company.

The bigger clams are a little harder to harvest, but in 15 minutes we had our limit, coming up with multiple clams on every pull of the rakes.


We packed it in, climbed back onto the boat and went for a brisk spin around Grand Island to see if Dow Clark the mechanic had success in clearing the clogged carburetor jets on the old Honda. We flew through West Bay, under the drawbridge, and past the boatyard, still in hibernation under a shroud of shrink wrap.

So the recipe? Steam the clams on high heat until the shells pop, then pluck them out and shuck them into a bowl, saving the clam juice. Saute in 6 tbsp. of olive oil about six big garlic cloves sliced very thin and a big shallot. Throw in two diced plum tomatoes, a cup of dry white wine,  two tbsps of red pepper flakes, three tbsps. of chopped parsley and reduce it down. Turn that off, boil a big pot of salted water, cook a box of thin spaghetti until it is almost done — drain, throw in the saute pan with the tomatoes, garlic, oil, etc., toss over high heat until all the liquid is evaporated. Turn off the heat. Throw in the clams and their juice, a dozen torn up basil leaves and eat. One of the better uses of four dozen littlenecks I’ve ever tried. Tomorrow – clams Casino and chowder before the Easter feast.

I should have been a Frenchman

My first pate de campagne is in the oven, cooking slowly in a bain marie, assembled per the recipe in my new favorite cookbook, Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. This is basically a French meatloaf, but a really, really, really good meatloaf. Pate has the reputation of being cruel liverwurst because of the iconic cliche of pate de fois gras, but the campagne version is the country version of essentially a big pork sausage without the casing, sliced, and served cold.

I’ve been itching to make one since an unforgotten meal some ten years ago in Paris, with my wife’s godfather, at a little hole in the wall in a neighborhood somewhere on the southwestern side of the city. We sat down and the waiter brought over a terrine — a rectangular earthenware container — with a baguette and knife.  I dug in and have been on a crusade to find that experience ever since.

I had to buy a meat grinder attachment for my KitchenAid mixer, and I just nuked the kitchen putting the recipe together, but little does my poor wife know what lies in store for I also purchased the sausage stuffing attachment so I can get real serious and start pumping out some andouille and other smoked tubes of goodness. I won’t be doing the salami, dry-cured stuff. Flirting with botulism is not my idea of culinary fun. Now I have to hit up my nephew for use of his mega-smoker that he got for Christmas a few years ago. This book has it all — how to use every part of the pig except for the veritable squeal.

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